For the second time in two years I found myself trekking in the Pyrenees. I have to admit I found it a very humbling experience this time around. Not only was I overwhelmed with the beauty and majesty of my surroundings, but this time around I was all the more conscious of the hardships suffered by Marian Rejewski, whose life in the inspiration for my historical thriller, The Cypher Bureau, published by the Book Guild.
Marian Rejewski and his colleagues walked from France to Spain in 1942 to escape Nazi occupation.
The trek, difficult enough with modern clothing and equipment was impossible to imagine from the perspective of Marian Rejewski. He had been on the run for months. The weather conditions were at their worst. When Marian made the crossing, it was April. The most dangerous time of year. The prospect of Nazi capture and torture behind, the belief that ahead things could only be better must have been a forceful motivator.
Between 1939 and 1945 it is estimated between 30 000 and 100 000 made the perilous crossing from France to Spain across the Pyrenees. Allied service men, Jews, European nationals escaping the Nazi regime. Men, women and children fleeing for freedom, following one of the Chemin des Libertie which were established and run with fearlessness by brave locals who risked their lives to save those whom they led across the mountains. The elderly, children, the infirm and the injured. Crossing the mountains to save their lives, in the knowledge that if they could not keep up with their guide and fellow ‘parcels’ they would be left to die alone in the mountains.
Before the outbreak of the II World War, the flow of refugees had been from Spain to France, consisting primarily of Republicans escaping General Franco's recriminations in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The French authorities built concentration camps to house these refugees. The camps were later used by the Vichy government to house Jews.
Initially the patrolling of the Pyrenees was fairly relaxed but once the whole of France was occupied, escape became much more difficult. More efficient border patrols were put in place and there were vicious reprisals against French people who sheltered and aided refugees. Many French people were captured tortured and sent to concentration camps or killed for helping refugees.
Several well-organised escape lines were in operation throughout the war including the Comet Line, the Pat O'Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line. For each line the procedure was similar. Escapees were passed from link to link in the chain by a succession of local "helpers" who clothed, fed and hid them, usually at great personal risk to themselves. Having reached the mountains, the escapees were hidden in secret collecting areas and formed into groups ready for the final night ascent to the Spanish border.
The Freedom Trail or La Chemin de la Libertie was inaugurated in 1994 as an official way-marked walk. The path commemorates one of the several secret escape routes over the central Pyrenees into northern Spain during the Second World War and today many people make the walk to commemorate those who gave their lives to save others.